The ghosts of Sydney: Glory and Jane's poignant bond

Their Olympic dream turned into a nightmare four years ago. Now Alozie and Saville pray for better days. Simon Turnbull talks to them
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The Independent Online

Glory Alozie had a glint of gold on the wedding finger of her left hand and a smile to match it. "Yes, I am married now," she said, fresh from another encouraging step along the road to Athens - fourth place in the 100m hurdles in the IAAF Golden League meeting in the Stade de France.

Glory Alozie had a glint of gold on the wedding finger of her left hand and a smile to match it. "Yes, I am married now," she said, fresh from another encouraging step along the road to Athens - fourth place in the 100m hurdles in the IAAF Golden League meeting in the Stade de France. "I'm married to a Nigerian, Mr Phyne Bouy Macaulay." The pronunciation was "Fine Boy". Alozie spelled out the letters for good measure.

"We are very happy," she continued. "Life is good. Everything is OK now. What happened in Sydney is in the past." Not that the diminutive bundle of inspiration will ever forget her heartbreaking experience at the 2000 Olympics.

She travelled there with her former fiancé, Hyginus Anugo, a fellow member of the Nigerian track-and-field squad. She was favourite for the women's high hurdles; he was a contender for a place in Nigeria's 4 x 400m relay team.

The couple were from the same village, near Lagos, and from the same tribe, the Ibo. They had moved to Valencia in 1997 to train together towards the Sydney Games. They were to have been married in January 2001.

They might still have done so had Anugo left Australia, as he had initially planned, after failing to make the final cut for the relay team. He attended Nigeria's pre-Olympic training camp in Adelaide but, as the seventh fastest of eight 400m runners, was dropped from the squad when the decision was made to take just six men for the relay.

Not wishing to miss his fiancée's big shot at Olympic glory, while Alozie headed off to Yokohama for a final competitive test before the Games Anugo made his way to Sydney and found accommodation in the halls of residence at Southern Cross College. A devout Christian, like Alozie, he was returning from evening prayers eight days before the opening ceremony when a bus slowed to let him cross a busy road outside a convenience store. Anugo was waving his thanks to the driver when he was hit by a car travelling in the opposite direction. He was killed instantly.

Alozie was still in Japan at the time. She was told her fiancé had been badly injured by a car but not that the 22-year-old love of her life had been killed. The tragic news was broken by her team-mates when she arrived at Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney. They wanted to be on hand to console her.

For four days Alozie was inconsolable in her room in the Olympic Village. She couldn't eat. She couldn't sleep. She wanted to go back to Spain. Ultimately, the words of Damishi Sango, Nigeria's Minister for Sport, persuaded her to stay and compete. "Go and win the gold medal for Hyginus," he told her. "It is what he would have wanted."

In the final, two weeks later, Alozie had the gold in her sights until the last of the 10 2ft 9in hurdles. Then she was overtaken by Olga Shishigina of Kazakhstan and finished in the silver-medal position. It was a truly staggering achievement. Alozie had become so frail from loss of appetite she had been spoon-fed by her Spanish coach, Rafael Blanque. She had lost 13lb. From somewhere, the 5ft 1in African summoned the strength to come within 0.03 of a second of Olympic gold.

Clutching her silver in the tunnel of Stadium Australia, she choked back tears and said: "I dedicate this medal to my fiancé. I wish he was here to see it. I am grateful to God for giving me the strength to see me through."

Not that the ordeal was over. Anugo's body was still in Sydney, three weeks after his death. The Nigerian Olympic Committee had refused to repatriate it, on the grounds that he had not been an official member of the Nigerian Olympic team. Their stance left a lasting mark on Alozie, long after she returned home with the body. Two years later she transferred her international allegiance from Nigeria to Spain.

It was a far-from-happy separation. The Nigerian athletics federation withheld her registration papers even when she won the 60m hurdles, representing Spain, at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna in February 2002. Her victory was later annulled, though she proceeded to win the European outdoor title in Munich six months later.

Fittingly, she was also conferred with a title by the Ibo, despite the controversy of her switch to Spain. They made her a chieftain, with the name "Ugwu Efiegemba" - "Pride of the People".

And so, four years on from her Sydney nightmare, the pride of the Ibo, and of Valencia, is preparing to return to the Olympic stage in the red-and-yellow colours of her adopted homeland. Perdita Felicien of Canada and Gail Devers of the US will start as favourites for the 100m hurdles, but in the cold and wind at Gateshead last month Alozie set a Spanish record of 12.57sec. It was her fastest time since the month before the Sydney Olympics.

Not that Alozie wants to look back as she gets ready for Athens. "What happened in Sydney is gone," the 26-year-old said. "It's in the past. It was a very difficult time - so very, very difficult. I don't even like remembering it.

"Life has to go on. I have to look to the present and to the future. I have to look forward to the coming Olympics." And to some further medal-winning glory, it is to be hoped.

Jane Saville

Jane Saville's main concern on Tuesday tea-time was to find some suitable reading matter. "I've come down to the café to search for some English magazines," she said. After a day's training in Sestriere, some 2,003 metres up from sea level in the Italian Alps, there is little to do but eat, watch television, or browse the pages of Time or Newsweek.

Saville has been based there for three weeks now, preparing herself for the women's 20km race walk at the Olympic Games in Athens next month. She might have been preparing to defend the title at the home of the Games, had her Olympic dream not turned into a nightmare in her home town four years ago.

Saville could have hardly come much closer to following in Cathy Freeman's footsteps as an Australian winner on the track in Stadium Australia in Sydney. She was 120 metres from victory in her 20,000-metre event when the chief judge, Lamberto Vacchi, of Italy, emerged from the entrance to the stadium brandishing the red card that signalled her defeat. After two prior warnings, the clear race leader had been disqualified for transgressing the basic law of competitive walking: the need always to have at least one foot in contact with the ground.

As a born-and-bred Sydneysider, with family, friends and an expectant crowd of 97,000 spectators ready and waiting to acclaim her victory, Saville was acutely distraught. She broke down in tears and wandered aimlessly around the precincts of the stadium in an inconsolable state of shock. She won countless admirers, however, for quickly recovering her composure, facing the media, and taking her fate squarely on the chin.

"I will just have to fix my technique," she told a packed press conference, "because obviously there's something wrong with it. It's just the way it goes in race walking. C'est la vie."

Four years on, Saville has worked hard on her technique and is getting ready for another Olympic challenge with the Commonwealth title to her name. She suffered another disqualification at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton and fleetingly considered hanging up her walking shoes. On the paths around Salford Quays in Manchester in 2002, though, she walked her way to Commonwealth gold.

The nightmare of Sydney has receded but not entirely disappeared. "It's on my mind a bit," Saville reflected. "I'm sure when I get to Athens everyone will be thinking, 'Can she do it this time? Can it be done?' And, yes, I'll be really happy to make it into the stadium with no red cards.

"When I was coming down the ramp into the stadium in Sydney, I was actually thinking, 'I'm going to be like Cathy [Freeman]. I'm going to win a gold medal, just like Cathy'. And then - it was no less than 30 seconds, 40 seconds later - the big red card came out. It was like a dream come true that turned into my worst nightmare within a few seconds.

"But that was four years ago. I've learned a lot from the experience, and that will help me in Athens. We'll just go in there and hope for the best."

The "we" alludes to the uncommonly close support Saville can count upon in her quest for Olympic redemption. The 29-year-old is training in Sestriere with her 25-year-old sister, Natalie, who also happens to be in the Australian team for the 20km walk in Athens. Both are coached by Jane's husband, Matt White, and he is also a member of the Australian Olympic team. He competes in the cycling road race in the Greek capital.

Like his wife, White knows all about the heartache of missing out at the highest sporting level. In 2002 and 2003 he was a domestique for Lance Armstrong in the events leading up to the Tour de France but failed to make the final cut for the US Postal team. This year he switched to the Cofidis squad, but crashed and broke his collarbone while riding a warm-up lap of the Tour prologue course in Liège. Four weeks on, he returns to competition in the World Cup race in Hamburg today.

"It's no big problem, being a cyclist coaching two race walkers," White said. "It's all about endurance - endurance-based training. And the training is one thing. As a coach, you have to know your athletes, and I understand both girls pretty well. I also understand the principles of endurance. Race walking's just like time-trialling in cycling, and I coach myself as a cyclist. I know how to get myself ready for races."

While the Savilles have been training in Sestriere, White has been getting ready for his own Olympic challenge at the base he shares with his wife in the European summer months each year. They have a flat near Valencia.

Glory Alozie, who suffered real life-and-death tragedy at the Sydney Olympics four years ago, happens to live nearby in the Spanish city, though Jane Saville has yet to meet the inspirational hurdler. "I know of her," Saville said, "but I don't actually know her. I remember the story about the athlete whose fiancé got killed in Sydney. I didn't realise that was her."

Saville was also unaware that the grieving athlete had managed to get her life back together for another Olympic shot. "Oh, good for her!" she exclaimed, with genuine admiration.

And good, too, for the Sydneysider who will be going for glory of her own in Athens. May the streets be paved with gold for her.

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